3 : 12 December 2004

Steven Wakeman


The 16th century found England at a crossroads of intellectual and spiritual pursuit, head-over-heels for an artistic Renaissance and a spiritual Reformation. At the heart of these two great pursuits was the saying, "Back to the sources!" The suppressed battle cry of English Christians was to take back Scripture that had been distorted from its original message and to distribute the Bible into the hands of the common man. In the midst of this fierce war, God raised up a man who would shine as a beacon of the light of His Word for the ordinary English man. By God's grace, William Tyndale revolutionized the entire world through his translation of the English Bible.

"England at the time of the Reformation was a country in the clutches of a merciless dictator, but ready and waiting for the truth and liberty of God's holy Word" (Trebilco 47). During the first half of the 16th century, tyranny reigned in England through the ruthless rule of King Henry VIII, who broke from the papal authority of Rome and spread intolerance with an iron fist. A person living in Coventry, England in the early 16th century would have witnessed men burned at the stake for merely reciting the Lord's Prayer in their vernacular language (God's Outlaw).

The century and a half between 1400 and 1557 was marked by the bloodshed of over a thousand men and women who were unashamed of the Gospel of grace (Friends). Yet in the midst of this chaos, God was preparing the harvest fields of the world for the seed of His Word. As the Word of God shot hot off the Gutenberg press into the far reaches of Europe, John Fox optimistically exclaimed that "the pope must either abolish printing, or find a new world to reign over" (Trebilco 51).

The entire Bible had first been translated into English from the Latin Vulgate through the scholarship of John Wycliffe in the late 14th century, in spite of the belief among spiritual authorities that an English translation stripped God's Word of its dignity and glory (53). In 1516 Desiderus Erasmus published the Greek NT. Such men set the stage for the subversive work of Tyndale.


William Tyndale took his first breathe of air in Gloucestershire, England in 1494 (Trebilco 55). Claiming a Master's Degree from Oxford in 1515, Tyndale was ordained a priest at the age of 37 (Dyer 212) and annoyed his colleagues by denouncing their traditions with the authority of God's Word.

Tyndale was enamored with the Bible and was saved through justification by faith as taught in Erasmus' Greek New Testament (Trebilco 55). Tyndale was determined that the Bible would not stay in Greek: "I utterly dissent from those who are unwilling that the sacred Scriptures should be read by the unlearned and translated into their tongue, as though Christ's teaching was so obscure that it could hardly be understood even by a handful of theologians, or as though the strength of the Christian religion consisted in men's ignorance of it. The counsels of kings are much better kept hidden, but Christ wished His mysteries to be published as openly as possible" (Trebilco 51-52).


This rebel of the Catholic Church was known to have a better handle on Greek than Martin Luther, and his scholarly pursuits achieved for him a master control over eight languages, including Latin and Hebrew (57). Appearing before the archdeacon of Gloucestershire for heresy in 1522 (God's Outlaw), Tyndale boldly declared, "I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost" (Trebilco 55). Thus began the career and mission of God's outlaw.

Tyndale, who was but a year younger than Luther (Dyer 212), agreed heartily with the famous Reformer in the fact that faith alone is sufficient to save a man (God's Outlaw), which was a wicked heresy in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Along with this unorthodox belief, Tyndale held dearly to God's mercy in salvation and set himself like flint against human tradition as binding to the soul, instructing that the Virgin and the Saints should not be invoked for prayer (Friends, God's Outlaw). Tyndale never affirmed anything but Scripture: "on these alone I stand" (God's Outlaw).


While insisting upon unconditional subordination to the king in his Obedience of a Christian Man (Jedin 333), in the same document he objected the view that Scripture was too high for the laymen and should not be in their "rude" mother tongue. Pointing out that Greek and Hebrew go more easily into English than Latin (Friends), Tyndale set out to fulfill a dream:

"I wish that the Scriptures might be translated into all languages, so that not only the Scots and the Irish but also the Turk and the Saracen might read and understand them. I long that the farm-laborer might sing them as he follows his plow, the weaver hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler beguile the weariness of his journey with their stories" (Trebilco 52).

The pursuit of this worthy dream first found Tyndale traveling to London to seek the favor of the bishop, Cuthbert Tunstall, for translating the Bible into English (Trebilco 56). Tyndale felt that the time was ripe for a translation, as the people were hungry for God's Word and often smuggled Luther's books into England. He hoped to gain episcopal authority for the translation, and so offered himself as chaplain to the bishop. To his dismay, the bishop did not possess the spiritual thirst of the citizens of London, so the request for employment was denied (God's Outlaw).


Realizing there was no chance to print the Bible in England, Tyndale left his homeland for good in 1524 (Dyer 213), sailing to Hamburg, Germany under the kind financial assistance of a merchant (Grimm 290). Here Tyndale enjoyed company with Luther and found solitude to continue his work (Dyer 213), which was translated from the same Greek New Testament that had brought him to salvation. Tyndale produced a meticulous and precise translation of Scripture that redefined the English language.

As the Library of Congress has reported, "Contrary to what history teaches about Chaucer being the father of the English language, this mantle belongs to William Tyndale, whose work was read by ten thousand times as many people as Chaucer" (Friends). Many English phrases which are still in common usage today were coined through Tyndale's translation, including "fight the good fight of faith," "brother's keeper," "salt of the earth," "eat, drink, and be merry," "God shall wipe all tears from their eyes," and "Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith" (Trebilco 63).

Tyndale accurately translated the Greek word metanoeo as "repent," rather than using the Roman Catholic translation of "do penance." Agape became "love" and not "charity," and ekklasia took on its literal meaning as a "congregation" rather than a "church" (55).


In all of his work, Tyndale held the layman in mind. As Dr. David Daniell of the University of London poignantly remarks, "Tyndale was writing for ordinary men and women reading the Greek New Testament in English to themselves, and to each other, round the table, in the parlor, under the hedges, in the fields; not for those obediently sitting in rows in stone churches being done good to by the squire at the lectern" (62).

The first of Tyndale's work was printed by Peter Quentel in Cologne in 1525 (God's Outlaw). By this time the authorities were on Tyndale's trail, and he narrowly escaped capture in Cologne before moving on to Worms, where his first translation of the New Testament was completed (Dyer 213).

The first edition went into print in Worms in 1526 with 6000 copies going into circulation (Grimm 290). Many of these copies were smuggled into England, often transported in cloth or hidden in sacks of flour (Friends). The bishop of London attempted to buy up as many copies as possible and burned them in St. Paul's churchyard (Grimm 291). Such a high price was offered by Tunstall for the New Testaments that friends of Tyndale sold the Scripture to the bishop in order to use the money to print more copies! (Trebilco 56).


This period of Tyndale's life found the translator constantly on the run for his life, denounced by men like Thomas More as "a beast" and "a hell-hound that the devil hath in his kennel" (56).

Although the following decade would see seven additional editions of his New Testament printed (Grimm 291), Tyndale was not without trials, including a devastating shipwreck off the coast of Germany after his arrival in Marburg in 1527. Tyndale's life was spared, but most of his manuscripts were lost in the wreck (God's Outlaw). Yet Tyndale could not be discouraged, and he went on to begin a translation of the Old Testament, making him the first person to translate anything from Hebrew into English. Tyndale's mastery of Hebrew was just as superb as his control of Greek, and the Pentateuch was printed in English in 1530.

In the process, Tyndale coined new terms, such as "Jehovah," "Passover," and "scapegoat." Ultimately Tyndale would complete the translation of all of the books through 2 Chronicles, as well as Jonah, which was a particular favorite of Reformers, who longed to see the kind of repentance take place in Europe that was found in Nineveh. Modern scholarship has found that Tyndale's Old Testament is actually superior to modern versions in its tone (Trebilco 56-57). Other works of Tyndale published during this period were the parable of "Wicked Mammon," "The Obedience of a Christian Man," and an introduction to Paul's epistle to the Romans (Dyer 213).


As Tyndale continued diligently in his labors, using his spare time to help the sick and the poor in Germany, the scholar was shocked in 1535 when he was betrayed by a friend named Henry Phillips, who handed him over to imprisonment in the Vilvorde Castle of Belgium (Trebilco 60). Tyndale was jailed for a year under unpleasant living conditions (Dyer 213).

In one letter, Tyndale penned, "I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh, which is much increased in this cell... My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening: it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study" (60).

To the end of his life, Tyndale was consumed with the Scriptures. On October 6, 1536, William Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake, but not before winning the jail keeper and his family to the Lord (60). His dying prayer was, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes" (Dyer 213).


Although the voice of Tyndale was silenced, the impact of his work only gained impact over time. John Rogers and Miles Coverdale continued where Tyndale left off and completed the translation of the rest of the Old Testament. Coverdale published the first complete English Bible in 1535 (Dyer 213), and two versions were already circulating in England before Tyndale was executed (God's Outlaw). The first edition became known as the "Thomas Matthew" Bible, and prohibition on the Bible was lifted in 1537 (Jedin 336). Just a year later, Tyndale received the answer to his dying prayer when King Henry VIII ordered that the Bible be placed in every parish church in England under penalty for non-compliance (Dyer 213).

Two decades later, the famous Geneva Bible was completed and put into circulation in 1560. Based largely upon Tyndale's work, the Geneva Bible went through 150 editions and was used by notable figures like Shakespeare, the Puritans, and the Pilgrims (Trebilco 62). The Authorized Version, or the King James Version, was commissioned in 1611. Although it was a new translation, 80% of Tyndale's work found its way into the KJV (63), which was the Biblical standard up until recent decades.


The implications of William Tyndale's life and work are far-reaching. Where would the church be today without the work of Tyndale in translating the Bible into our mother tongue? The translation of the Bible into English was powerful fuel thrown into the fire of the Reformation, and it is this fuel that keeps the spirit of the Reformation going strong in evangelical circles today.

The power of God's Word in the hands of ordinary men cannot be underestimated. The Lord declares in Jeremiah 23:29, "Is not my Word like fire, and like a hammer which shatters a rock?" God asserts this, His law is perfect, restoring the soul (Psalm 19:7), and that His Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (119:105). God's Word does not return to Him void without accomplishing what He desires (Isaiah 55:11), and the power of God's Word is accomplishing the salvation of souls (Romans 1:16).

Cameron Townsend once said that "the greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. It never needs a furlough, and is never considered a foreigner."

Today the Bible has been translated into over 1200 languages, largely as a result of the work of English-speaking Christians who were so powerfully touched by the Word of God in their heart language that they were compelled to become modern-day William Tyndale's and translate the Bible into languages that have not yet heard John 3:16. Although he is not normally connected with major mission movements, Tyndale's work was one of the most vital contributions to world evangelization.


Unfortunately, the value of God's Word is often cheapened in today's society, in which half a dozen copies of the Bible can be found in any typical American home. Ironically, the dream of Tyndale of the saturation of Scripture in ordinary society has had the effect of making the Bible too ordinary to society, so that the value of the Book has decreased. Christians living in lands where God's Word is most scarce tend to be the ones who place the highest value on the Bible as a treasured gift from God Himself. This was the case in England in the 1500's, when Christians were martyred for reciting and reading Scripture. John Foxe describes the situation:

So scanty was the supply of Bibles at this time, that but few of those who craved its teaching could hope to possess the sacred volume. But this lack was partly made up by the earnestness of those whose interest was awakened in the Bible. If only a single copy was owned in a neighborhood, these hard-working laborers and artisans would be found together, after a weary day of toil, reading in turn, and listening to the words of life; and so sweet was the refreshment to their spirits, that sometimes the morning light surprised them with its call to a new day of labor, before they had thought of sleep. Their highest aim was to possess for their own some portion of the sacred book. (Friends)

Accounts such as this have convinced many Christians that America will not see widespread revival in its passion for God's Word until persecution returns to the West.

Tyndale's translation of the English Bible stands as one of the greatest contributions to history. God's "living water" has been placed in the hands of countless millions as a result of this man's work. Thousands have gained a passion for missions and entered the harvest field with the sword of Scripture to complete around the world the task that Tyndale began when he determined that the Bible should be available in the vernacular language. Until Christ returns, the passion of Tyndale's existence must remain the cry of the Christian's heart: "On Scripture alone I stand."


Dyer, George H. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 3. Cincinnati: Jennings & Pye, 1903.

Friends of William Tyndale...History of the English Bible. Fire for the Ploughman, 2003. 26 Oct. 2004 .

God's Outlaw: William Tyndale. Gateway Films. Written by Ben Steed. Grenville Film Productions, 1988.

Grimm, Harold J. The Reformation Era. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

Jedin, Hubert. History of the Church. Vol. 5. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

New American Standard Bible. The Lockman Foundation, upd. ed. Anaheim: Foundation, 1997.

Trebilco, Jonathan O. Light Shines in Darkness. 1994.


Steven Wakeman